For the second straight spring, when Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett looked down his bench for a player to step up his game on a shutdown checking line, he selected winger Joel Lundqvist and was not disappointed in the results.
After a stellar post-season last year in a seven-game first-round loss to Vancouver, Lundqvist again elevated his level of play in the playoffs this year. With the Stars trailing Detroit 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals, he was called upon to help nullify the Red Wings’ super-line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.
Skating on a line with center Toby Petersen
and fellow Swedish winger Loui Eriksson
, Lundqvist shined as the Stars climbed back into the series with two consecutive wins, including a 2-1 victory in Game 5 in Detroit with Lundqvist scoring the game-winner on a beautiful wrist shot.
“He’s a big-game player,” Tippett said of Lundqvist. “If you look back at his reputation in Sweden, he was the exact same way, he was a player that played on good teams, played on championship teams and was effective in the playoffs. He finds ways to get the job done in tight and crucial situations.”
After collecting a goal and two assists in Games 3-5 against the Red Wings, Lundqvist finished the post-season with two goals and seven points in 18 games. The 6-foot-1, 194-pound native of Are, Sweden also recorded 67 bodychecks, third on the club and fourth in the entire NHL heading into the Stanley Cup Finals, while averaging 14:06 of ice time per game.
For a guy that struggled at times during the regular season, spending three weeks at AHL Iowa back in November and sitting out as a healthy scratch at various times, including as recently as March 30, his revival in the playoffs was nothing short of spectacular.
“It’s been a tough year for me, for sure,” Lundqvist acknowledged. “I felt real good at the end here, I played more, got more confidence, I liked the more physical and faster game in the playoffs, fun games to play in.”
“He’s a player, he struggled a little bit earlier in the year,” Tippett noted. “His dad was ill and there was some struggles there, but he was a guy that we relied on a lot in the playoffs and he gave everything he had.”
He certainly did, especially when the club needed a spark facing elimination in the Detroit series. It may have seemed like an odd move to task three unheralded players with stopping the Red Wings’ superstars, but it pretty much worked.
“The one thing that Toby Petersen
, Lundqvist and Eriksson do, they all play the game pretty fast,” Tippett said, explaining his strategic reasoning. “Zetterberg and Datsyuk, they were playing faster than we were able to keep up to. So we decided to throw those guys against them, see if we could at least calm them down a little bit. Those guys are great players. They’re going to get great chances in the game. If you have some people that can go at least the same pace as they are, I think - you’re never going to stop them, but it gives you a better chance.”
“The first game, of course, we were nervous, all three of those guys are among the top players in the league,” Lundqvist said of Detroit’s top trio. “The key for us was just skating hard, we’re pretty good skaters, all three, and work hard. That’s the key against those guys, you’ve got to work hard because they work hard. They’re skilled, but they work really hard to backcheck and get pucks back. Work hard and keep them on the outside and I think we did a pretty good job, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Lundqvist only feels that way because Detroit ultimately won the series in six, but his line’s work on Zetterberg and Datsyuk clearly had a significant impact on the series. After Datsyuk scored a hat trick and Zetterberg contributed a goal and two assists in Game 3, they each got just one point in the next two contests. In the Game 6 loss that ended the series, each scored, but the goals both came on special teams (Datsyuk power play and Zetterberg short-handed) when other forwards were on the ice against them.
“You know, Petersen’s line, it’s no surprise to any of us in our locker room, how well they’ve played,” said goaltender Marty Turco, who was also instrumental in limiting the Wings’ dynamic duo’s appearances on the scoresheet. “The other guys have been on top lines. Lundqvist played on our most productive line last year in the playoffs, played the most minutes. He’s just an honest player. Loui, as great as he’s been, he’s got just those star qualities that we look forward to years down the road what he can possibly do in this league. Toby is such an intelligent player, has been around a long time. When given the opportunities, he’s always risen.
“That just shows you the confidence people can take from playing a lot, the responsibility you can give to those you might not think can handle it and they have. They played great. It’s no surprise to us, but maybe to some.”
To many Stars observers who watched Lundqvist sit out as a healthy scratch for eight straight games in February and 13 of the final 28 regular season contests, Lundqvist’s return to prominence in the playoffs was somewhat unexpected.
But after proving his abilities last season as a rookie, especially in the playoffs against the Canucks, Stars fans might have been wondering what took him so long to get back to that same high level.
Teaming up with Stu Barnes and Jeff Halpern on a vital checking line that neutralized Vancouver’s lethal Sedin twins, Lundqvist also tied for the club lead with two post-season goals, including one in Game 7 that gave the Stars a 1-0 first period lead.
Following that impressive performance, big things were expected of Lundqvist heading into 2007-08, but despite totaling two goals and an assist in the first four games, his effectiveness declined and he began to see his ice time reduced. He was assigned to AHL Iowa, the Stars’ top minor league affiliate, on Nov. 1 and remained there until Nov. 24.
“It’s been tough,” said Lundqvist, who regained some confidence in Iowa by scoring two goals and six points in eight games. “I tried to work hard and felt like I had a good camp and came out of it with confidence and a good start, too, then they sent me down for three weeks and that was really tough for me. It was the toughest time in my hockey career, for sure, when they sent me down, so it made me stronger. After that, I was in and out the whole year, so it’s been tough.”
Lundqvist, the Stars’ third-round draft choice (68th overall) in 2000, seemed to get lost for stretches of the regular season and did not display the same energy or feistiness on a consistent basis that he did in the 2007 playoffs. He completed the regular season with three goals and 14 points in 55 games.
A statistic that further illustrates his reduced impact was his total of 88 hits, which still ranked fourth on the team but was much lower than the 110 he registered in just 36 contests as a rookie. He also averaged just 10:32 of ice time, considerably less than the 13:58 he averaged in the 2007 playoffs.
It also means he skated over three and a half minutes per game more in this year’s playoffs, a very significant increase which undoubtedly contributed to his improved performance.
“I played more, that’s the most important,” Lundqvist said of his turn-around in the playoffs. “I hadn’t played much this year.”
“I was only around for the tail end, so it’s hard for me to comment exactly,” said Petersen, who was recalled from Iowa in late March, of Lundqvist, “but he really did find his game, and you noticed it in the playoffs, he was definitely on top of his game.”
Now the trick is for Lundqvist, 26, to be able to attain that level of play more frequently in the regular season next year, which will be his third in the NHL.
“I think just maturity,” Tippett said of what will help Lundqvist establish that consistency year-round. “He recognizes what he has to do. Some of it is opportunity, he got caught in a numbers game a little bit, but his play has elevated himself to where he’s a very good NHL player now.”
“I tried to show them that I’m a guy that I want to play,” Lundqvist said. “Hopefully, for next year, I’ve shown them I’m going to play here. I don’t want to go down to Iowa again.”
If he plays anywhere close to the way he did in the playoffs, he won’t have to worry about that ever again.